Signs and Symptoms of Opiate Abuse

The term opiate refers to any type of narcotic opioid alkaloids that come from opium poppy plants and includes Vicodin, OxyContin, and the illegal street version, heroin. Opiates, also interchangeably called “narcotics”, work to depress the central nervous system and are commonly used to reduce pain or to aid in helping people fall asleep. They can also be used to quiet feelings of uneasiness and help one rest and relax. While some opiates are prescribed by doctors to help treat legitimate pain-related ailments, their effects can lead some people to become addicted. Opiates create a sense of euphoria and well-being, which can be extremely appealing to many individuals. The more that people use different types of opiates, the higher their tolerance becomes, causing them to need to take higher doses in order to feel the high that they desire. While opiate addiction can feel like a never-ending spiral downward, with the right treatment and care, addiction to opioids can be overcome.

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The type of opiate that is most prominently abused is heroin. However, painkillers are becoming just as prevalent and can be equally as dangerous. It’s estimated that 5 million people in the United States are addicted to prescription opiates, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 52 million people have experimented with abusing opiates for recreational purposes at least once. While opioid abuse can begin at any age, studies have shown that the average age for experimentation is getting younger and younger. 1 in 12 high school seniors report nonmedical use of prescription pain pills like Vicodin, while 1 in 20 report abusing OxyContin. In the United States, 18% of people who enter treatment for addictions are abusing opiates.

Causes and Risk Factors of Opiate Abuse

The causes and risk factors of opioid abuse will vary from person to person, but it is believed that a combination of factors can work together to induce addiction. A combination of social, genetic, psychodynamic, and pharmacological factors can interact to cause one to become addicted to the drug. The following are some examples of factors that can play a role in the onset of opioid addiction:

Genetic: It has been stated that there is a high degree of genetic vulnerability when it comes to opioid dependence. People are more susceptible to the onset of opiate addiction if biological family members (such as parents or siblings) suffer from an addiction as well.

Physical: Theories have been made that state that opioids help a person’s ego by managing the painful effects of things such anxiety, anger, and guilt, among others. Dopamine and serotonin receptors are two aspects of the brain that are affected when an individual begins using opioids and as the chemicals become imbalanced, the higher the likelihood becomes that that person will develop an addiction.

Environmental: The ease in which people can obtain opiates make experimentation easy. Similarly, the fact that the use of prescription opiates is accepted socially makes the appeal of the drug seem less dangerous. Studies have also shown that a high rate of drug use tends to be more prominent in areas where there exists higher crime rates, a high degree of unemployment, and poor parental interaction.

Risk Factors:

  • Preexisting mental health issues
  • Chronic pain
  • Family history of addiction
  • Poor familial dynamics
  • Easy access to opiates
  • Exposure to crime and/or violence

Signs and Symptoms of Opiate Abuse and Addiction

The signs and symptoms an individual is abusing opiates will also vary from person to person based on the level of intoxication that results from a person’s consumption. The following are some examples of symptoms that may present themselves in people abusing opiates:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Slurred speech
  • Increased irritability toward others
  • Violence
  • Abuse
  • Angry outbursts
  • Theft
  • DUIs
  • Borrowing or stealing money

Physical symptoms:

  • Constriction of pupils
  • Sleepiness or insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Lowered heart rate

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Variable concentration
  • Drowsiness
  • Memory impairment
  • Intermittent periods of dozing

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Fluctuations in a person’s mood
  • Agitation
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability

Effects of Opioid Abuse and Addiction

Untreated, the effects of opiate abuse and addiction can range from relatively mild to life-shattering. Long-term complications of opiate abuse and addiction will impact virtually all aspects of a person’s life and may include:

  • Marital issues
  • Family problems
  • Significant changes in social behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of interest in things that one used to be interested in
  • Work or school problems (absences, poor performance)
  • Legal problems
  • Loss of friendships
  • Arrests
  • Medical problems
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

The effects of opiate withdrawal alone can be uncomfortable, but are not normally life-threatening. However, withdrawal should always take place in a supervised medical atmosphere. After a person stops using opiates, the symptoms that he or she suffers from can last for anywhere between a week to one month. Various withdrawal symptoms that a person may suffer from after stopping high doses of opiate intake can include:

  • Runny nose and teary eyes
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Variable concentration
  • Low energy
  • Hot and cold sweats
  • Stomach cramping
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Central nervous system arousal (including restlessness, sleeplessness, and tremors)

Although withdrawal from opiates is not typically life-threatening, overdosing on the drug can be fatal. It has been estimated that approximately 17,000 people die as a result of opioid overdose in the U.S. every year. The effects of an overdose can include symptoms similar to those previously listed as symptoms of withdrawal, but can also include:

  • Blacking out
  • Slowed pulse rate
  • Shallow, slow respirations
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Coma

Co-Occurring Disorders

Like most drug addictions, there are a number of mental illnesses that can coincide with one’s addiction to opiates. Some examples of such illnesses can include, but are not limited to:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Conduct disorder (in adolescents)
  • PTSD
  • ADHD
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Addiction to other substances
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